Using genetic data to understand past human interactions with biodiversity

Te Papa researcher: Lara Shepherd

This research uses genetic techniques to provide insight into New Zealand’s cultural past. Our research findings provide new knowledge on interactions between Māori iwi by determining the translocation pathways of cultivated plant species.

We are also using DNA to examine the relationships between weaving cultivars of harakeke and distinguish between plant species used to make tapa (barkcloth) in the Pacific region.

A scientist wearing white gloves creating a page with a plant specimen on it


Toromiro (Sophora toromiro). Photo by Rachel Hockridge. Te Papa

A photo of a plant with large green leaves and spiky fronds with the sea and sky in the background


Whau (Entelea arborescens). Photo by Lara Shepherd. Te Papa

Main collaborators: Rob Smissen, Sue Scheele (Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research), Peter Lockhart, Nick Roskruge (Massey University), Catherine Smith (University of Otago), Matt Ryan (Victoria University of Wellington), Peter de Lange (Unitec).

Funding: Marsden Fund and Rutherford Discovery Fellowship.

Representative publications:

Shepherd LD, de Lange PJ, Cox S, McLenachan PA, Roskruge NR, Lockhart PJ. 2016. Evidence of a strong domestication bottleneck in the recently cultivated New Zealand endemic root crop, Arthropodium cirratum (Asparagaceae). PLoS ONE 11: e0152455.

Shepherd LD, Thiedmann M, Lehnebach C. 2020. Genetic identification of historic Sophora (Fabaceae) specimens suggests toromiro (Sophora toromiro) from Rapa Nui/Easter Island may have been in cultivation in Europe in the 1700s. New Zealand Journal of Botany 58: 255-267.

Shepherd LD, Whitehead P, Whitehead A. 2019. Genetic analysis identifies the missing parchment of New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. PLoS ONE 14: e0210528.